Months of frustration manifest as a three-record set




There are few things as annoying in the music world as “limited edition runs.” Never was this quite as aggravating as with the vinyl release of the soundtrack to Pearl Jam Twenty.

Released in the dead of night last fall on Pearl Jam’s official site, the three-record set immediately sold out. From there, the few copies that made their way into the real world either quickly sold out or wound up on the secondary market at amazingly inflated prices. Having a fan base as dedicated as Pearl Jam’s can quickly lead to $400 asking prices on eBay, and a $400 record has never been in my budget.

So it was. For the next year, whenever I was in a record store, I went to the Pearl Jam section and checked, just in case a copy found its way from the bottom of a warehouse floor to the sales rack. I looked behind registers. I asked clerks. I called stores. This desperate attempt to find a copy at retail price was quickly and obviously a futile task, but it’s one I carried out anyway.

Every record collector, and collectors of all manners, I imagine, have their personal “white whales” they seek out. I have records I’m always on the lookout for — an original copy of the Kinks’ Arthur, most early U.K. Beatles’ releases, the double 10-inch version of Ryan Adams’ Love Is Hell — but the search for Pearl Jam Twenty was different. In a flash, this was a record that was there and gone. And it was a record that best illustrates why I’ve spent so much time and energy on this band. I wanted to hear it properly, and hearing it properly was prohibitive.

But minor miracles happen. And so it was that I was in my parents’ living room a few days after Christmas, over to have a holiday dinner delayed by flights and other commitments, that I tore the paper off a record mailer, popped open the flaps and saw a brand-new copy of the record waiting inside.

Well, damn.

I don’t know how they found it, but maybe it took someone who wasn’t all-consumed by tracking it down to casually find one online that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Maybe it was luck. Whatever it was, I was immediately beside myself, eager to get back home, pop it on my turntable and scour the artwork.

The simple act of sitting on my floor while side two spun, crossed-legged on the carpet staring at the tiny demo cassettes on the back jacket sent me back to my 14-year-old self, scribbling out J-cards of cassette tapes and inspecting the tiny polaroid photos included with the tape edition of No Code.

I took out the special composition notebook I’ve reserved for all Pearl Jam thoughts since 2003, mostly shows and special album releases, and I jotted down a page, preserving the moment I dropped the needle on “Release” after fighting some ridiculous snow-packed streets and a car that insisted on skidding around the city before finally coming to rest outside my apartment building.

The entire endeavor taps into a part of my brain that was forged at the dawn of high school and seared into permanence at some point in college, when I was organizing and labeling bootleg recordings and obsessing over lyrics and chord changes.

It’s beyond music, clearly. It’s ritual born from obsession. When that ritual is channeled through what is — by far — the best document of this band I’ve followed for so long, it can feel a little heavy. So listening to “Release” live in Italy, 2006, or the Seattle, 2001, version of “Nothing As It Seems,” or Chris Cornell’s demo of “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” in the format where music lives and breathes most freely hits a nerve in a way that nothing else could.

There’s the element of the hunt involved, of course. When more than a year’s time is spent checking every record store within 100 mile radius, when racks are searched in cities like Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Va., in a desperate attempt to find an elusive copy, a record can take on mythic qualities.

I have dissected the liner notes and inspected the myriad little photographs tucked inside the flaps of the jacket, and I’ll keep doing so for the days to come. More importantly, I can listen to it the way music is best played. From “Release” through “Rearviewmirror,” sides A through F, the songs and the sounds can fill up my living room and my headphones in the fullest form possible.

I’ll find another record to pine over, I’m sure. It’s the nature of collecting. But this record wasn’t about merely finding and shelving a few pieces of vinyl in a fancy gatefold cover. It was about finding and listening to that record, specifically. And then, there it is, sitting in my lap in my parents’ living room, still behind the plastic, waiting to be torn into and pored over and played.

Dec. 30, 2012

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